A group of women lead a sisterhood Shabbat dinner at a synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1943. (Photo/Flickr-Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest)
A group of women lead a sisterhood Shabbat dinner at a synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1943. (Photo/Flickr-Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest)

How do we save ourselves from ourselves? Shabbat.

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Exodus 21:1-24:18

Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation” Wise words. All of us, even the greatest people, struggle with self-control.

So how do we resist temptation? How do we save ourselves from ourselves?

Consider Warren Buffett’s strategy. Buffet is one of the wealthiest and most successful investors in the world, yet he, too, struggles with self-control. You see, Buffet loves eating hamburgers and fries, and vanilla ice cream, but he feared gaining too much weight. So he devised a strategy. He gave unsigned checks for $10,000 to his children, promising to sign them if he was over a target weight by a certain date.

What Buffett did is an example of a “commitment device”— a way to lock yourself into a choice you might otherwise dodge. He held himself accountable.

But Buffett’s idea had a big flaw: His children, spotting a rare opportunity to get money from the notoriously frugal billionaire, resorted to sabotage. Doughnuts, pizza and fried food mysteriously appeared whenever Buffett was home. (This story is told in Alice Schroeder’s biography, “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.”)

In the end, the commitment device worked. Even with his children’s attempts at sabotage, Buffet kept his weight down, and his checks went unsigned, and uncashed.

All of us seek ways to save ourselves from our own weaknesses.

Some people delete games from their smartphones to stop them from wasting time. Some put their alarm clock across the room to make sure they get out of bed. Some alcoholics take Antabuse — a pill that makes you sick when you drink alcohol. Some put software on their computers to stop themselves from visiting unhealthy and destructive websites.

We all struggle, every day, to bring out our better selves. Katherine Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, has studied the way people wrestle with two kinds of products: “Wants,” which are things they crave in the moment, and “shoulds,” which are the things they know are good for them.

For instance, Milkman studied people who buy groceries online. When people are purchasing for next-day delivery, they order many more “want” foods than when they’re ordering for a more distant delivery date. We are salad people in the future and doughnut people in the moment.

Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” conducted a survey of more than 250,000 people and found that most people clearly feel that family is their top priority. Most even put family above their own health. They would put family ahead of their own life. They would even die for their family.

But when you ask them to really look at their lifestyle and where they give their time and their primary attention and focus, you almost always find that family gets subordinated to other values like work and hobbies. We say one thing, and do another.

Covey points out that this struggle between work and family is where people consistently give themselves the lowest marks. People recognize that there is a gap between what they are doing and what really matters most to them — and yet it seems too hard for them to change. They recognize the disparity, but are helpless to do anything about it.

Recognizing this struggle, God gifted us the ultimate commitment device — Shabbat — a way to lock yourself into the best choice you might otherwise dodge.

On Shabbat, the Torah commands in this week’s torah portion, “You shall do no work … rest and sanctify it.”

On Shabbat, we leave our hectic schedules and spend the day together as a family: eating, talking, singing, praying, catching up and enjoying one another’s company.

Shabbat is a 24-hour “commitment device” that helps us bring out our better selves and allows the true richness of our life and family to emerge.

But let’s be honest, our desires are powerful and stubborn. There will be temptations — just like there was for Buffett — that will try to sabotage Shabbat. But we can overcome.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.